Even though it dates back to 1452, until fairly recently I had never heard of the Doctrine of Discovery – and perhaps most Americans are largely unaware of that deplorable doctrine.
Please think with me now about what the Doctrine of Discovery is and why it is so deplorable.
In June 1452, Nicholas V, the Catholic Pope (reigned 1447~55), issued a papal bull (public decree) under the title “Dum Diversas.” It primarily authorized King Afonso V of Portugal to conquer and subjugate Muslins and “pagans.”
Specifically, the pope granted the Portuguese king permission “to invade, search out, capture, vanquish and subdue all Saracens [Arab Muslims] and pagans whatsoever, and other enemies of Christ wheresoever placed, … and to reduce their persons to perpetual slavery…”
As it was issued less than a year before the Fall of Constantinople in 1453, the bull may have been intended to begin another crusade against the Ottoman Empire.
The crusade did not develop, however, and the capital of the Roman Empire established in 330 fell to the Turks and the empire ended.
The papal bull, however, was used by Portugal to begin taking slaves from Africa and then for subjugating indigenous people in the “new world.”
Some who have recently written about the Doctrine of Discovery say it is so deplorable because of its use to subjugate and oppress Native Americans in what is now the United States.
The mistreatment of Natives by the Spanish in what is now Texas and the southwest part of the U.S., and the same sort of mistreatment by the French in Florida and Louisiana, was, no doubt, partly because of the Doctrine of Discovery.
But those parts of the U.S. were then incorporated in various ways into the U.S. by a government almost completely controlled by White Anglo-Saxon Protestants who were opponents of Catholicism.
The Puritans were Christians in England who sought to purify the Church of England from Catholic practices, and after coming to “New England,” they sought to do in the “new world” what they couldn’t do in England.
The Puritan attitude toward the Native people, however, was very similar to that expressed in the Doctrine of Discovery.
From 1630 on, the spirit of triumphal conquest found in the Doctrine of Discovery was later justified by the concept of Manifest Destiny.
It was under the overarching idea of Manifest Destiny that the Natives of North America were abused and exploited in much the same way that the indigenous peoples of Central and South America had been subjugated by conquistadors from Catholic countries based on the Doctrine of Discovery.
The intention of both the Doctrine of Discovery and of Manifest Destiny was to subject indigenous peoples to the rule of white European and/or Anglo-Saxon “Christians.”
What can we do now? Perhaps the first task is to learn about how terribly destructive the implementation of the Doctrine of Discovery and of Manifest Destiny was for Native Americans.
There are Christians in recent years who have been writing about the evils of the Doctrine of Discovery.
Mennonite Church USA, for example, has since 2014 been working on resources for “dismantling” the Doctrine of Discovery. Check out their Doctrine of Discovery website here.
In 2016, the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) responded to a 68-page report on the Doctrine of Discovery by repudiating the doctrine, labeling it as heresy and lamenting the pain it has caused.
One of the authors of the CRC report is Mark Charles, who is half Native American and half Dutch American.
He and Soong-Chan Rah are the authors of a book on the subject I highly recommend: “Unsettling Truths: The Ongoing, Dehumanizing Legacy of the Doctrine of Discovery.”
The authors conclude “our only path to healing is through lament and learning how to accept some very unsettling truths.”
But in addition to learning and lamenting, surely there is a need for confessing, repenting, apologizing and determining to engage with others in seeking to dismantle the deplorable Doctrine of Discovery.
What will you do?
Addendum: In the Department of Defense Appropriations Act of 2010, of all things, there is an apology to the Native Americans in the U.S.
Section 8113 of that Act, which was passed into law by Congress in December 2009, states:
“that the United States, acting through Congress: (1) recognizes that there have been years of official depredations, ill-conceived policies and the breaking of covenants by the federal government regarding Indian tribes; (2) apologizes on behalf of the people of the United States to all Native Peoples for the many instances of violence, maltreatment and neglect inflicted upon them by U.S. citizens; (3) urges the President to acknowledge such wrongs; and (4) commends state governments that have begun reconciliation efforts and encourages all state governments to work toward reconciling their relationships with Indian tribes within their boundaries.”
Unfortunately, that apology received hardly any press coverage and was largely overlooked by President Obama.
A missionary to Japan from 1966-2004, he is both professor emeritus of Seinan Gakuin University and pastor emeritus of Fukuoka International Church.